Why not the SS United States as a hospital ship?

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By Brian J Pape, AIA

The SS United States is a former ocean liner built in 1951 for the United States Lines. It could be a converted hybrid of entertainment attraction and hospital ship on one of the docks in Hudson River Park, fitting the theme and history of the waterfront, while responding to many needs. Photo: SS United States Conservancy.

I’m sure many of our readers have known about the existence of hospital ships for years, so how about a hospital ship for the west side of Lower Manhattan?

The SS United States is a former ocean liner built in 1951 for the United States Lines. The ship is the largest ocean liner built entirely in the United States and the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in both directions. Designed by US naval architect William Francis Gibbs, it was inspired by British ocean liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, according to Wikipedia. The construction was a joint effort with the United States Navy and designed to be converted into a hospital ship or a troopship should the Navy require it. Extensive use of aluminum meant significant weight savings, and it had the most powerful steam turbines of any Merchant Navy ship at the time, delivered with four 60,000-pound manganese-bronze propellers and 18 feet in diameter. One of the four-blade propellers was mounted at the entrance to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, but now sits at Pier 76 in New York, while another is mounted outside the ‘American Merchant Marine Museum on the grounds of the United States. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York.

The SS United States maintained an uninterrupted schedule of transatlantic passenger service until 1969. The ship’s fittings were then auctioned off by new owners, and the entire ship’s hazardous waste was removed, leaving her almost completely stripped in 1994.

Since 2009, a preservation group called SS United States Conservancy had been raising funds to buy the ship, and now to save the ship for new use.

In March 2020, New York-based commercial real estate firm RXR Realty announced plans to convert the liner into a 600,000 square foot permanently moored hospitality and cultural space alongside Pier 57 in its home port of origin of New York. This plan seems dead in the water.

THE HOSPITAL OPTION

Repurposing the SS United States as a hybrid entertainment attraction and hospital ship on one of the docks in Hudson River Park would meet many needs, the most important being the need for a full hospital in our area . A hospital ship at one of the docks in Hudson River Park matches the theme and history of the waterfront, as evidenced by the many historic ships permanently moored along their docks.

Although earlier estimates for restoration as a luxury cruise ship were ‘up to $700 million’, repurposing the ship as a hybrid entertainment attraction and hospital ship may be less. and could create a source of income to offset expenses.

In any case, the high price of land alone for any building in the area would certainly exceed $200 million, possibly by much more.

And think of the fun destinations the old funnels can provide: observation towers for tourists, nightclubs away from functions below decks, and ventilation stacks for all intensive care units.

But Pier 57 is not the only possible berth. If that dock doesn’t work, Pier 40 has been looking for new uses for years and has the advantage of having vehicle ramps serving all levels, including the roof; a “Plan B”.

(Pier 86another former United States Lines passenger dock still exists, although the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is permanently moored to the wharf.)

Then consider Piers 75 and 76, formerly the United States Lines terminal. Recently redeveloped into a flat open space where the police towing pound was located, Pier 76 would allow ample space for ambulances and other vehicular access alongside the hospital ship. Although it’s further up town at 34th Street, the Javits Convention Center, and Hudson Yards, it could be a potential “Plan C.”

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Council Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking only in his personal and unofficial capacity), co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of the AIANY Committees on Historic Buildings and Dwellings, is LEED-AP “green” certified, and is a journalist specializing in architectural topics.

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